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A little too black and white
on February 14, 2014
I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I completely understand where the author is coming from, and he does make some excellent points. Being part of a democratic society should mean an open and free exchange of ides, even when those ideas are unpopular. The question everyone should ask themselves is this: Who gets to decide what is "right" and what is "wrong"? Is it yourself or the people you agree with? That's all fine and dandy, but what happens if things change and it's the people you disagree with who end up making the rules? As Lukianoff points out, the minority opinion does need to be protected, and we can learn things from others, even those who have wildly divergent viewpoints from our own.
That said, there were times when I thought the book was a little contradictory. There's a chapter taking universities to task for the justice system with regard to sexual assault. Now, I totally agree that universities should not be the arbiters of these things in the first place. They are criminal matters that should be handled in court. And while I don't doubt that there are innocent people accused of assault who end up suffering punishment, I think Lukianoff is really cherry-picking his cases here. Maybe he's taking the position that the whole system is invalid if even one innocent person is punished for something they didn't do, I don't know, but I think we all understand that no justice system is perfect, and that innocent people sometimes will be punished. Yet while Lukianoff points out that violations of people's first amendment rights are underreported, he doesn't mention that it's the same story when it comes to sexual assault. There are reams of documentation that prove this, and sexual violence on college campuses is a serious problem that universities often try their best to conceal from the public.
A lot of what this book describes is a slippery slope as well. Yes, everyone does have a first amendment right to free speech, but that doesn't make you immune from suffering the social consequences of expressing a view that others find offensive. Isn't that also part of the democracy Lukianoff wants to uphold? I agree that speech should be protected, but some of the issues addressed in this book seem to imply that the way people reacted to speech they found offensive was wrong. If someone is physically assaulted for expressing an unpopular opinion, then, yes, that's obviously wrong. However, if people take to Twitter in droves and tweet about how much they hated what you said, well, that's the possibility we all have to face.
I think this book also lacks a nuanced discussion about harassment. Most of the college speech codes he cites did strike me as far too heavy-handed, but there should also be an acknowledgement that it's difficult to write a description quantifying harassment. Let's suppose that a woman is in a college class and one person makes a single sexist joke. What if every last person in the class makes one? Yes, their speech is protected, but doesn't that create a hostile atmosphere for that woman? Replace the woman with a conservative Christian or a gay man or a member of a minority facing offensive jokes from every other person in the room, and you get the picture. Yes, universities have an obligation to protect minority opinions, but they also have an obligation to protect their students from hostile environments. Yes, they are often overreaching to that end, but I think that's a flaw of society as a whole, and rectifying it is a lot more complicated than telling universities they have to stop being so overbearing.
That's where the book fails for me, by not dealing with the nuances. Lukianoff uses a lot of egregious examples to make his point, but his argument is one-sided. We should definitely take a critical look at university policies to ensure they're not too onerous, and I was 100% appalled when I read his descriptions of residence programs that require students to do things like reveal when they discovered their sexuality. That certainly is no one's business, and universities do not have a right to violate a citizen's privacy or first amendment rights in the name of protection. I by no means am trying to defend actions like that. What I am trying to say, though, is that it's all well and good to claim free speech must be protected at all times, but the real world isn't quite that black and white.
I also did not like how Lukianoff inserted himself into the narrative. Reading this book felt like reading a court argument. I think he could have made a stronger case by taking a different stance, because injecting FIRE and himself into the book makes it obvious that he has a very firm position on the issue. That's fine, and I'm not saying authors shouldn't be allowed to do this, I'm just saying that the book didn't work for me personally because of its structure. Still, it was a very thought-provoking read, and I agree that Americans do need to stop dividing themselves into camps and lobbing verbal grenades at one another. And I firmly agree that students' rights need to be more firmly protected, not just at the college level but also at the high school level. We need more civics education; we can hardly be surprised that Americans are so illiterate about it when they're not being taught it.